"Berbers are the Scots of Morocco."

The Berbers are the Scots of Morocco.  Or so a shop owner told me.  According to him, they resemble the Scots because they wear plaid and drink "Berber whiskey" (mint tea).  I'm not sure how well the comparison holds up.  The Berbers are the indigenous peoples of Morocco and most of Northern Africa.  I had the good luck to go to a Berber village two weekends ago when I was in Morocco.

We drove for hours to get out of Marrakech into the mountains.  One thing that surprised be about the city was how green it was.  The mountains that we drove through, on the other hand, looked more like what I had expected - packed dirt from red to brown held together by by scraggly shrubs and trees. 

Our car dropped us off in Imlil, a small village in the Atlas Mountains, and we hiked up to the home where we were having lunch.  As we climbed, the world opened up to us so we could see a rushing stream and the highest peak in North Africa, Jebel Toubkal, in the distance.  For some reason, this place felt more ancient than most.  If it were a person instead of a locale, it would be a gray-braid weraing woman with tanned skin, and a face and hands as deeply cut with wrinkles as the hills are by the river.  She would be a weaver and a singer and a memory-keeper.

When we finally reached this Berber home we ate the most delicious Moroccan food I've ever had : a chicken tagine with potatoes, zucchini, and carrots, a couscous, tea, and oranges.

My friend Sasha said going there made her feel close to God.  It made me feel close to the earth.
Maybe it's the same thing.

Au Jardin Majorelle

The Majorelle Garden in Marrakech is just what you'd hope for : exotic, lush, and full of color.  Bevies of cacti, ponds full of water lilies, and forests of bamboo coexist among brightly painted doors, pots, and buildings.  Originally created by the painter Jacques Majorelle, the gardens were later purchased by Yves Saint Laurent, whose partner still owns them today.   According to their brochure, "[t]he originality of these places lies in the combination of a luxurious vegetation and architectural elements allying sobriety and traditional aesthetic Moroccan."

Wishing more of my life had that Yves Klein blue.
One of YSL's "Love" posters on display in a gallery at the garden.

Love 2011,

Arriving in Marrakech

I arrived in Marrakech and left it in at about the same time - about half past seven in the morning.  At that time of day, there is something almost soft about the city.  The light turns the earth colored buildings, which look orange at night, to pink.  Some of the hustle and bustle has already started but in a quiet way, everyone going about their lives : getting to work, setting up shop, drinking coffee.  It is not yet the rabid tourist feeding frenzy that it becomes later in the day.

The boulevards are lined with palm trees and roses. Bougainvillea creeps over the buildings.  The streets are already alive pale yellow taxis, cars, and bikes (bicycles, motorcycles, and their country cousin which I can only describe as a motorbike - that is to say a bicycle that has been souped up with an engine).  In many places the flow of traffic is unclear, the motorists apparently making it up as they swerve around pedestrians.

As the sun rises, so does the activity.  The main square in the medina, the Jamaa el Fna, is a giant frying pan on which the city scrambles.  There are juice stands fresh-squeezing oranges, grapefruits, and lemons into what can fairly be called ambrosia.  Women ink henna onto tourists who stand still too long.  Men charm snakes and make monkeys do back flips over their chained collars. 

You can enter the souks from the main square.  They are a beehive of activity.  Every vendor sits outside his little alcove, calling out to passersby.  Most of the time you see in one stall what you saw in the last and will see in the next.  Chinese manufacturing has hit Morocco.  Sometimes you will find shops that have the real deal - turquoise, coral, and lapis jewelry; ancient daggers; teapots, chests and chairs inlaid with stone and enamel.  If the shop owner is named Hassan, you will escape with only enough money for your taxi back to your hotel.

Roccin' in Morocco,



When I asked my cousin Kathryn, my architecture guru, what I should see in Andalusia, she recommended Granada and sent me this little limerick :

Dale limosna mujer,                      (Woman, give alms to the beggar,
que no hay en la vida nada,          
for there is no pain in life
como la pena de ser,                      like the pain of being
ciego en Granada                          
blind in Granada.)

Granada would in fact be a bad place to be blind for several reasons :
1) It is a hilly city and there are a lot of uneven cobblestones and stairs.
2) Fortune-telling gypsies who tell you you're beautiful and then want €10 would be able to sneak up on you. 
3) You wouldn't get to see the incredible beauty - both natural and man-made - of Granada.

Sierra Nevada

I had the good fortune to visit when the orange blossoms were in bloom, making the whole city smell divine.  I had a delicious melón y jamón for lunch one day, which is one of my all time favorites.  I watched the sun set over Alhambra and the city from a hill.  I was charmed by the white washed buildings with tile roofs, dripping with wisteria.  I got asked on four dates in a little over 24 hours (slightly above my usual average).  I liked Granada a lot, but all my plans went a little bit awry. This may or may not have been caused by a gypsy curse (see no. 2 above).  The only truly devastating snafu had to do with my visit to Alhambra.


Alhambra, as you may know, is a world famous castle built by the Moorish Emirs of Granada around seven hundred years ago.  It's a big deal and a very hot ticket.  In order to get day-of tickets you have to show up at the crack of dawn.  Once you're in the huge compound, there are lots of different buildings to see. The most famous of these buildings is the Nasrid Palace, for which you are given a specific entrance time on your ticket.  

I got to Alhambra well before my visit time and did the other buildings first so I could leave after the Nasrid Palace.  Somewhere between the second to last thing I visited and the Nasrid Palace, however, my ticket fell out of my back pocket.  It is impossible to get in anywhere without your ticket.  I retraced my steps; I asked at the information desk if anyone had turned it in.  No luck - gypsy curse.  So after exhausting outrage, attempts at bribery, begging, and tears I had to leave without seeing it or miss my bus.

But now, I have a reason to go back, right?


The City of Tiles

Lisbon is decked out in tiles.  Whole buildings are covered with their floral and geometric spiraling in navy, mustard, olive and terra cotta like the table cloth your grandmother spreads over her table on Sundays when your whole family goes to her house for dinner in the garden.  The city has a slippery glisten as the sun hits the tiles.

In Portuguese, tile is "azulejo."

Portuguese Kindness

At every turn in Portugal we were met with kindness, friendliness, and generosity.  Here's one little story of it :

My last afternoon in Lisbon, I met a man named Sergio with only a few teeth.  He’s always lived in Afalma, in Lisboa.  We were sitting in the shade looking out over the water when a pinecone fell – thwack – onto the cobblestones between us. 

He spoke to me in Portuguese as he went to pick it up.  I looked at him and at the pine tree, twisty and sinuous unlike the pencil straight pines I knew growing up. 

He brought his treasure next to me and with rough fingers began to pull apart the prickly cone, plucking brown stones from its womb.  With a rock he cracked open one of the little stones, offering me the soft whiteness inside – a pine nut.

When I sat beside a cone’s worth of nuts, he told me his name and asked me mine.

“Ah. Maria,” he said, “Maria.”

Depending on the kindness of strangers,


On our first night in Lisbon, we went to a tiny local restaurant. Devagar Devagarinho, for dinner and fado.  We got there around nine and were worried that the fado would never begin. 

Around eleven, however, they turned out the lights except for a couple of red-scarf-covered lamps that threw the room into a dim pink glow.  Two men with Portuguese guitars started strumming gently and sure-fingeredly.  They looked around at the crowd, a mix of old and young locals, talked to each other, closed their eyes a little ; they never looked down.  They knew the music better than they knew themselves.

The man who had stood behind the bar at the grill when we entered the restaurant came upstairs to sing for us.  The guitar player sang.  A short woman who also worked there took off her shoes and sang in a voice rough but breakable like the bark peeled off of an oak tree.

A group was there filming the real fado of Lisbon.  They shot the woman out on the steep stone-paved street.  Fado is important to Portugal - its name means "destiny" and it is their national music, part of the deep soul of the nation.  It is like the sea : melancholy and beautiful, with all its drama coming from its swells, the great crashing wildness juxtaposed against the sweetly gentle lapping of the voice as it trips from soft to loud.

A Portuguese guy who spoke a little English asked me if I knew enough Portugese to get the story. 
"No," I said, "What's it about?"
"Longing," he replied.
I told him, "I don't understand, but I understand."

A wannabe fadista,